The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    Michael Wolraich's picture

    Don't Cry For Background Checks

    Supporters of gun control lost yesterday. It was not a terrible bill. Expanded background checks would have stopped some future killers from buying guns. It should have passed. But it would have done little to reduce gun violence in America.

    "Fighting" Bob La Follette, a progressive senator from Wisconsin, once wrote, "In legislation no bread is often better than half a loaf. I believe it is usually better to be beaten and come right back at the next session and make a fight for a thoroughgoing law than to have written on the books a weak and indefinite statute."

    La Follette became famous for championing "radical" legislation that had no chance of passing--corporate regulations, labor rights, lobbyist restrictions, and popular election of U.S. senators. He took up his colleagues' time with "pointless" filibusters. He ran three times for president and never even came close to winning.

    A century ago, La Follette's tactics infuriated President Theodore Roosevelt. Though their objectives were similar, Roosevelt approached politics one battle at a time. He would size up the opposition, adjust his expectations, and push for a bill that was most likely to pass. "Nothing of value is to be expected from ceaseless agitation for radical and extreme legislation," he preached.

    La Follette not only refused to support Roosevelt's compromise measures, he fought against them. "Half a loaf, as a rule, dulls the appetite, and destroys the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf," he argued.

    Roosevelt, dumbfounded, concluded that La Follette was nothing but a "shifty self-seeker" whose goal was to "make a personal reputation for himself by screaming for something he knew perfectly well could not be had."

    But Bob La Follette had a plan. The measures he promoted were popular among the public if not in Washington. After he fought as hard (and as loud) as he could, he would collect the names of every politician--Democrat or Republican--who had voted down his bills. He would go into their respective states and deliver speeches about the bills he had tried to pass. Then he would read the roll call, and people would jeer the names of their own senators and congressmen. When the elections came, some of those politicians would lose their seats. The rest would look nervously over their shoulders the next time a "radical" measure came up.

    It was long term plan. La Follette had to mobilize voters and transform Congress before he could pass the legislation he wanted. He did not accomplish his objectives during Roosevelt's term or Willam Taft's. But when Woodrow Wilson arrived in the White House, few of the senators and congressmen who had voted against La Follette's reforms remained in office. A coalition of progressive legislators in both parties passed the most sweeping reforms since the Civil War--including all those radical bills La Follette had championed.

    If La Follette were around today, he would not lament the gun control bill that was defeated yesterday. He would not even have voted for it. Like Senator Dianne Feinstein, he would have pushed for an assault weapon ban and other "impossible" measures that practical politicians dismiss as futile in the current Congress.

    Those measures would lose, of course. But then La Follette would go into the country and speak out against the politicians--Democrat or Republican--who defeated them. In the next session, he would come right back and fight for same legislation. He would keep at it year after year until the people who voted against the bills changed their minds or faded away.

    Michael Wolraich is the author of Blowing Smoke (Da Capo, 2010). For more about Bob La Follette and Theodore Roosevelt, sign up for news about his current book project, When the War Began (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).



    Great bit of history, Michael.  Thanks.  Looks like the Republicans learned well from old Fighting Bob.  Sort of backfired on us Dems.  Maybe because we suck at lessons learned.

    Way to read the subtext. Over the past 20 years, the NRA hammered many gun control supporters out of Congress and made the rest so nervous that they won't touch it, a classic La Follette strategy.

    I'm not sure how the left fell into the defensive. It started with Reagan. When the right started to make gains, the left freaked out and went into a crouch. I suppose there's a different mentality than there was a century ago. LF had nothing to lose. If conservatives made gains, things would not have gotten worse. But now we have a century of legislation to worry about. Democrats are afraid to take risks that could detriment conservative members of the party because a Republican majority could inflict serious damage.

    LaFollette's strategy, as you suggest, was a brilliant one.  But just as assault weapons aren't muskets, yesterday's tactics won't work to solve today's machinations. Nowadays, after one election cycle of doing that, LaFollette would be "Gephardt-ed" or have some primary opponent secretly funded by the opposing party, or he would be set-up and 'scandalized'.  Or all of the above.  But he would be gone.  And given how swiftly the GOP can destroy states like Michigan and Wisconsin, the long, patient, waiting game is too costly and painful in today's world.  I think the Heritage Foundation's long term plan for turning the judiciary Conservative is probably the last really long-term strategy we'll see ... at least for a while. Why? Because the GOP has done too good a job of nailing the "back door" shut.  Do you remember the internet before websites found the way to make it so you couldn't hit the 'back' button to reverse what you did and leave their sites?  We're never going back to a time before that.   

    Yet the GOP has been playing the long, patient game very well. You think they took Michigan and Wisconsin overnight? They've been laying the groundwork for decades. Remember Macomb County, Michigan? That was what, 1980?

    PS Gephardt was no La Follette

    Yes, I agree, the GOP has been playing the long game brilliantly.  So well, in fact, they've ruined it for anyone else that wants to play that game by shutting down the ways it can be played. Their gerrymandering in 2010, for example.

    Hey, I never claimed Gephardt was LaFollette. LOL


    I see guns as a technological problem.

    The Jinns are out of their bottles.

    Hell, in another decade or so you will be able to shoot someone with lasers coming out of your IPOD.

    People will be manufacturing arms in their garages with 3D printers.

    This was a symbolic vote but hopefully certain fascists will be punished and thrown out of office.

    Meanwhile adults will continue to shoot adults and children and children will continue to shoot adults and other children.

    We lost this battle decades ago.

    The second amendment says that Americans have the right to keep and buy arms. Not guns. Arms. Arms include means of defense besides just guns. You can use explosives or bazookas or lots of other weapons to defend yourself and some of them make more sense for certain kind of attacks. For example, I could plant mines outside my bedroom window in case a burglar wanted to break in that way.

    My thinkin' is that the next step in gun rights advocacy is to recapture the freedom to buy arms to the literalist intepretation that was meant by the literalist wrighters of the document.



    What's mine is mine!

    That's what I always say.

    Oh, and you have the right to bear arms and even bare arms I suppose; but buy arms?

    My brother-in-law was recently arrested for carrying a collapsible baton. He bought it years ago to defend himself from bears in the woods or something and forgot that it was in his backpack when he went to the airport. Now he has to go to court. Guns are legal in New York but not collapsible batons. Go figure.

    There is common ground......  I dont know of anyone that believes, those ajudicated mentally unfit, should have a gun. Get both the Democrats and Republicans to put more money into  mental health care. Put their money where their mouth is. There are multitudes of people, who once they've been entered into the data base of mentally unfit, it would be an easy step, to also get these people on SSDI; a  program currently under attack; box the Republicans in. Support Mental health care and reduce the risk of the mentally ill getting guns. A win win for all sides, would be a good start for good legislation, with far reaching favorable outcomes  other than taking guns from law abiding citizens. Every true gun rights, 2nd amendment advocate, saw Obamas overreach, as the Camel's nose under the tent.....Im waiting to see  if Obama will take the survivors of the Boston Marathon back to Washington, to pressure Congress,, to push for legislation, to end the senseless killing of civilians, when the US conducts drone strikes.  Someone hates us for who we are; why else would an 8 year old die with two others and many wounded at a maarthon?  Eliminate the reason for hate. Has Obama taken the bully pulpit since the gun bill failed;  to push for more mental healhcare or are we still hung up on chained benefits?

    I thought of your post when I saw this just now on the NYT home page:

    Room for debate
    Why the Gun Bill Fell

    If 90 percent of Americans support background checks, why wouldn’t the Senate?

    It's a really good question. Did Fighting Bob ever have 90% of the public agreeing with him in one of his "fights"?


    They were blissfully ignorant of public opinion polls back then, but many assumed that Congress was out of sync with popular opinion, particularly the Senate. Senators were still elected by state legislatures, which were controlled by corrupt party machines, so democracy was a bit of a shambles.

    It's still a shambles, I suppose, but for different reasons. First off, I assume that 90 percent is concentrated in blue states and liberal districts, so conservative areas are likely to be more balanced. Second, gun rights advocates are much more likely to be single-issue voters. That is to say, background check supporters are more likely to vote for anti-background-check politicians than background check opponents are to vote for pro-background-check politicians. Third, the NRA and other gun rights organizations contribute a lot more money to elections than gun control organizations. 

    I was wondering whether some of those NRA members who are said to support new control legislation might be withdrawing their support for the NRA. A  quick google search revealed nothing I could  believe with confidence, but there are claims that membership is spiking upwards. One claims 250k new members. Formatting right now does not want to let me post a link.


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